A sparse crowd was on hand late last week at the community building in Franklin where state Senator Jim Davis held his first town hall meeting since being elected to office. Senator Davis plans to schedule town hall meetings in all eight counties within Senate District 50 in the next several months.
The Nov. 22 meeting was promoted as a non-partisan event, as Macon County GOP chairman Chris Murray announced when introducing Senator Davis to the podium. Murray did invite Macon County’s Democratic Party chairman Ben Utley to the meeting, but Utley declined due to a scheduling conflict.
Ed Trull, pastor of Holly Springs Baptist Church, delivered the invocation and The Smoky Mountain Marine Corp League presented the colors before the meeting commenced. After WWII Navy veteran Richard Robb led the audience in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, Davis took questions from his constituents for the next hour and a half.
Racial Justice Act
District Attorney Jeff Hunt, a Republican from Brevard who is challenging Rep. Heath Shuler in 2012, made his presence known before the town hall discussion got under way. Hunt thanked Senator Davis for being tough on crime and specifically praised Davis for standing up against a “racial percentage bill for death penalty cases.”
Hunt was referring to the 2009 racial justice act, a law that allows judges to analyze statistics when hearing complaints from death row inmates and other prisoners who argue that racial bias influenced their sentences. Senator Davis and the GOP legislature amended the racial justice act in a 27-17 vote on Monday, but Governor Perdue will likely veto the initiative.
All 44 elected District Attorneys in the state oppose the 2009 Racial Justice Act, according to Davis. Critics of the act state that 57 death row inmates who have used the act to appeal their sentences since 2009 are Caucasian. Furthermore, Senator Davis and the 44 District Attorney’s suggest that the statistical studies used by judges as a result of the racial justice act are skewed due to the small sample size of death row inmates in the state; North Carolina currently has currently has 158 inmates on death row.
Gasoline Tax and Voter ID
Among other topics of discussion were the state gasoline tax, which is set to increase next year, the gay marriage ballot initiative, the state budget, offshore oil drilling, redistricting, abortion, education, and voter ID. Although the meeting was not well attended, the constituents present did not waste an opportunity to engage their senator about public policy issues that concerned them.
The first constituent question dealt with the state’s gasoline tax, which currently stands at 35 cents per gallon; a record high for North Carolina. The gasoline tax increased by 2.5 percent right as the one cent sales tax expired last summer.
The tax is set to increase to about 39 cents per gallon on January 1. North Carolina adjusts the tax every six months based on wholesale gas prices. Davis stated that he would fight to prevent future tax increases, but also noted that the revenue which emanates from the gas tax is earmarked to maintain the state’s infrastructure. Davis added that he will provide judicious oversight to the infrastructure fund to ensure the earmarked monies do not get raided in the future.
The state House voted last Monday to cap the gasoline tax to prevent an increase, but the state Senate did not get a chance to vote on the measure, which means the gasoline tax will likely increase by about four cents per gallon next year.
Senator Davis later said the gas tax is a “different animal” from sales and income taxes, since the revenues are designated solely to revamp the state’s highways and bridges. On Nov. 29, Davis said that he would have voted against capping the gas tax if the Senate voted on the issue, saying the state needs the money for infrastructure repairs. Davis added that he would like to reform how the gas tax is calculated, since the method has not been changed since Jim Hunt’s tenure as governor from 1993- 2001.
One citizen questioned Davis about his support for the voter id bill and the projected costs of the potential measure. Davis said the law would cost an estimated $25 million to implement, but argued that some of the projections are inaccurate. “Most people have a photo id,” David said in response to the citizen’s question. “Very few people do not have a photo ID,” he said. “We just need to tighten up the rules so that everybody that votes can vote,” he said.
Critics argue that the legislature’s push for a voter ID law is unjustifiable. The constituent who questioned Davis argued that the bill is simply a solution looking for a problem. Senator Davis and the Republican controlled legislature passed a voter ID bill earlier this year, but Gov. Beverly Perdue killed the measure with a veto. State Republican legislators say they will continue to make efforts to override the governor’s veto before the 2012 elections. Davis and several other citizens provided some anecdotal evidence to back up their support for a voter ID law. Davis mentioned Will Garvey, an intern at Civitas Institute in Raleigh, who claimed he witnessed voter fraud in the 2008 general election.
Another citizen voiced her appreciation for Senator Davis’ votes on education, commenting that she was pleased that no teacher in Macon County lost their job. She also stated that public expenditures for education have increased by 30 percent in the last decade, but student test scores have shown no signs of improvement during the same time period. Davis used her comments as a segue into criticizing what he perceives to be bloated state bureaucracies.
“One of the things that we were intent on doing is cutting public bureaucracies. Not just in the Department of Public Instruction but in all of government,” said Davis. Davis used the North Carolina Highway Patrol and the Department of Public Instruction as examples. The senator said the legislature recommended for the NCHP to cut their bureaucracy, but they chose instead to suspend their training school indefinitely, according to Davis.
The NCHP was issued a $12 million cut in their organization when the legislature passed their budget last summer, and eventually mustered enough Democratic support to override Gov. Perdue’s veto. Davis also said the education budget put 1,100 more teachers in grades K-3 and spent thousands of dollars on literacy programs for children in those grades. Davis said that children must be able to read at grade level by the time they get to the fourth grade, otherwise they will be much more likely to fail in the future, according to the research cited by Davis.
“So you are going to read stuff and you have read stuff about how we fired all of these teachers. It’s not true. The education budget was cut about 5.8 percent, but they weren’t draconian,” said Davis when discussing the K-12 education budget. Senator Davis proceeded to defend his vote for the state budget, which killed the temporary one cent sales tax and income tax surcharges enacted by the previous legislature. “We were not going to raise taxes,” said Davis. “We promised we were not going to do that. We promised that we were going to get North Carolina’s fiscal house in order and I think we’ve done a lot to do that.” The senator said that he was proud of his votes on fiscal issues thus far, especially since they balanced the budget without federal stimulus dollars and tax increases.
Gay Marriage and Abortion
When asked about compromising on tough votes, Davis commented that his vote in support of the gay marriage ballot initiative made him somewhat uneasy. “I have a lot of libertarian in me,” he said. “I believe firmly, passionately that a marriage should be defined as being between one man and one woman. But I also believe with all my heart that in a free America people who choose to live a different lifestyle should have a legal right to do so. Just don’t call it marriage,” said Davis. He explained that the gay marriage amendment that will be on the ballot next May will “restrict their freedoms a little more beyond my comfort zone,” he said.
“The marriage amendment is so important because these gay and lesbian, transgender people want moral equivalence to a heterosexual marriage, and it never can be in my opinion. A heterosexual marriage is the bedrock of our society. I feel passionately about that, but I don’t think we need to restrict the rights of people who do not choose to live our lifestyles,” said Davis. The senator used a similar argument when talking about people who choose to smoke cigarettes and live sedentary lifestyles, arguing that people should have the liberty to live as they see fit, but they should pay higher insurance premiums to compensate for their unhealthy habits.
The North Carolina legislature, with Democratic support, voted to put a constitutional amendment that would ban gay marriage and civil unions in North Carolina on the ballot next summer. The people of North Carolina will vote on the amendment next May.
Another controversial social issue brought up at the meeting was abortion, and Davis said he had no problem voting on a bill that required women to receive counseling and wait 24 hours before undergoing an abortion. Perdue vetoed this bill as well, only to see the legislature override her opposition once again.
Oil drilling and unfunded liabilities
When asked if he would support offshore oil drilling, Davis responded that he would support drilling as long as the state had the capacity to drill safely. The constituent told the senator to “be careful,” and Davis acknowledged that he would approach the issue cautiously.
The senator did raise alarms when he brought up the state’s unfunded liabilities as the town hall meeting winded down. He noted that the National Guard pension fund was $40 million in the red, and even more concerning to Davis is the state’s retiree healthcare pension fund, which he claimed was $32.8 billion in the hole. In addition to the unfunded pension funds is the state’s current Medicaid shortfall, which amounts to $139 million.
Legislators are playing the blame game about who is responsible for the shortfall, with Democrats contending that the $356 million budget cut in the Department of Health and Human Services is the culprit. Medicaid is a federal entitlement program for poor children, adults, and the disabled. The state usually allocates around $3 billion for the program.
“We are broke. Our federal government is broke, and some tough decisions are going to have to be made. We can’t do anything if we are broke,” concluded Davis. He went on to mention how the state could save money in the Medicaid program if they targeted abuse more thoroughly. Davis said the state spends $43 million on a breast cancer drug in the Medicaid program, when the state could easily get a more affordable substitute. He claimed that a state legislator was “in bed” with a prescription drug company, which is costing the state millions of dollars. Davis believes the example illustrates the abuses within the Medicaid program.
Senator Davis will hold seven more town hall meetings throughout District 50 in the upcoming weeks. The American Conservative Union recently awarded Davis with the highest “Defender of Liberty” rating. The ACU follows Congress and state legislatures to track the voting records of congressional members and state legislators, identifying public servants who consistently vote for limited government, individual liberty, and traditional values.